"Great. So now you've made another creature out of magic you don't understand," said Tigala.
I didn't respond. The rock creature just stared at us and we stared back. After a few moments of silence, it seemed to look around. It saw some other pebbles lying on the ground near it, walked toward them, and made them levitate towards it. The rocks drifted near to it and it started launching them up into the air and then making clumsy steps as it watched the rocks and tried to "catch" them again. The whole time, not a single rock touched the creature's hands, if you could call them that.
"Is it playing?" I said. Tigala and I stepped out from behind our trees watching the odd rock creature.
I approached, taking slow deliberate steps.
"Hello?" I said, wondering if it could even hear me. It's not like it had rock ears or anything, but who knows? It didn't react and continued its solo game of catch.
I took a few steps closer, trying to get a better look at the thing. It seemed to make expressions out of the glowing runes on his face. I bent down and said, "Can you hear me?"
This time, it responded. It sprinted at me, it's body bobbing along as it floated above its detached legs. Rocks started pulling out of the terrain and clumping onto the creature. Within an instant, it grew to the size of a Dwarf, made entirely of clumps of rock. I tried to get up and run, but I wasn't prepared for an attack. It had reached me in no time, and all I could do was cover my face with my hands and hope it didn't pummel me.
But there was no impact. After a few seconds of bracing, I peeked passed my raised arms and saw the Dwarf-sized rock golem just standing in front of me. Then, the rocks fell into a heap on the ground with Marv's little rock creature on top of the pile. It rolled on its back with a hand on its stone belly and configured the glowing runes on its face to resemble a wide, open-mouth smile and closed eyes. The motion was accompanied by a repetitive grinding sound.
"It's laughing at me," I said, confused. "Marv, you should come see it. It's your rock."
"I don't know. I'm not interested in magic. It only makes things more complicated," he said, stepping out from behind his tree.
It had stopped its laughing fit and began diving into the mound of rocks and popping its head back out every so often. "What if it can help. Maybe you can use it to help us look for your family."
Marv walked a little closer. "That's not how I was hoping to use it. I was hoping to trade it or something, use it as a bargaining chip."
When he approached, the little rock creature climbed out of the mound and looked Marv over. It walked a circle around him and then continued staring back.
"Do you have a name?" asked Marv.
CCRREEKKGG The creature made a grinding noise that was hard to distinguish from any other sound it had made.
"Is that your name?" Marv asked again.
The little creature bobbed its head up and down in a nod. So that little punk does understand us, I thought.
Marv tried sounding out the name. "Grag, crek, creg... Can I call you Crag?" he asked.
The little creature bobbed its head up and down again. Marv looked back at me and Tigala with a wide grin, like he was pleased with himself.
"Can you fight?" Marv asked Crag. The creature nodded and formed a runic smile on its face. Then it began pulling rocks to itself once more, growing in size by the second. "No, no, no. Not now. Not me," said Marv, waving his hands and back-stepping. Crag slumped his shoulders and let the rocks fall off of him again.
Marv looked at us again with wide eyes and then a rock hit him in the side of the head. His face soured with anger as he looked back at Crag, who was doing his pseudo belly laugh again at the top of a pile of rocks.
Marv rubbed his temple. "What was that for?"
Crag just pointed at him with one arm while he continued his strange grinding laugh noises.
"Can you help us though. These woods are dangerous. Can you fight if we need you to?" asked Marv.
Crag shrugged his floating shoulders.
"Stupid thing. It's fitting that the one powerful stone I find is just a useless prankster," Marv said as he stormed off.
Tigala and I followed after him. "He might still be useful. We can bring him with us when we go searching tomorrow," I said.
Marv just kept walking as he said, "Why would we go searching? They're all dead anyway. The island killed them. You're all just living in a fantasy. There's no one left to find."
I couldn't believe what he was saying. "What do you mean? No one has found any bodies or signs of struggle. They could be out there right now, looking for a way back. Your family could—"
"They're dead," Marv said, turning to look me in the eyes as he said it. After a few seconds of making it clear that he had given up, he turned and continued stomping through the forest.
Tigala walked to my side and stopped. "Come on. Let's keep moving."
"Can you believe that?" I said. "How could you give up on your own family like that."
"He's just scared that might be the case. He's a coward."
I took a deep breath. Then I heard a pattering and grinding noise behind me. Crag chased after Marv and dove onto his leg, hugging it like a bear on a tree.
"Get off," Marv shouted, shaking his leg. After a few moments of struggling, he made no progress and gave up. With a frustrated huff, he began walking again, with one leg significantly heavier than the other.
"I guess Crag's sticking around then," said Tigala.
When we finally reached the tower, the daylight was starting to fade. The clouds stretched out for miles overhead in a gorgeous array of oranges, pinks, and blues. There sure weren't views like this in Brighton.
We approached the tower with more finesse than last time, with Tigala being in a better mood. Marv filled that role instead this time around, but even still, the sight of the tower seemed to pique his interest. He stopped when saw it, pulling his head back.
"Is something wrong?" I said, trying not to agitate his sour mood even more.
"That's Dwarven construction. The walls. They're one piece of stone," he said.
"Oh, I was wondering why it looked like that," I said.
He stared at it for a few more moments without any response and then stepped inside. Before the sun retreated entirely, Tigala snuck down the staircase to ensure that the door to the spider basement was closed. Then we climbed a ladder to the second floor.
It was a dark room, aside from the light let in through the six window slits and the missing section of the wall that was about as wide as I could stretch my arms. On top of a wooden floor sat a table with some papers scattered about it, and a crude cot on the opposite wall. I walked up to the table first, seeing the papers it held. They were blank, but they looked like they had been there for a long time. I guess I shouldn't have expected anything. The representatives probably had already picked through the place.
Another table held a plate with the rotten remains of some kind of food on it. It was now unidentifiable, covered in mold. I tossed the whole thing out of one of the window slits and walked over to the broken section of the wall. I used my magic to grow a dense ivy from the ground up to the opening.
"So, what do we do now?" asked Marv.
"I guess we make this our home for now, and we keep looking for the missing people," I said. Marv didn't seem to react to my mention of missing people. "At least we're further out here, so we can cover more distance."
"What if Rodrigo finds us out here?" He asked.
"Then we take him down again," said Tigala. "He's not that tough."
I looked from Tigala to Marv and shrugged. On one hand, it was kind of nice being out in the middle of nowhere. There was no one around except for us. Less drama to be had, and I was used to taking care of myself anyway. This was more my speed.
On the other hand, most of my life had been spent hiding among other people. And this somehow felt lonely. Even though I was finally living in the wilderness, like my people always had, I felt further away than ever.
The ivy had reached the opening on our floor of the tower and I used it to span across the gap, creating a weave of vines as thick as my wrist, with the leaves serving to keep us out of view.
I hoped Lolan and Zef were okay. I hated that they stayed back and tried to help. Even if they survived, would Rodrigo let them go? Would the other representatives? I didn't like thinking about it. They weren't Treeks, but I still cared about them. And if Rodrigo threw them back in those jail cells, I might just have to try and break them out.
When I had finished forming a wall of vines and leaves, Chipry hopped over to it and perched on one of the inner branches. "Does anyone have any food?" I asked.
Marv was already laying on the floor, using his pack as a pillow. He shook his head.
"I can go hunting in the morning," said Tigala.
"Yeah," I said. "That would be good. I'll go grow some food for tonight." I walked over to the ladder and climbed back down to the first floor where I could get closer to the dirt. I grew berries first as they were quicker. I created small shoots of strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. I grew some vegetables next—a few potatoes to give us something hearty, some cauliflower, and more. We ate well that night, despite only having my plants for food.
It was a rough night of sleep. The forest felt alive, with owls hooting and other animals wandering around in the grass below our dwelling. Nothing snooped around on the first ground at least, but every little sound stirred me awake in fear of running into that troll again, or worse.
Tigala and I spent the next two days close to the tower making small searches in the area but didn't find much. Marv stayed in the shelter mostly, occasionally climbing to the roof to keep an eye out for threats or Zef and Lolan, who still hadn't arrived.
On the third night, I was beginning to worry. Last I had Lolan and Zef, they had run off to fight a house-sized lizard. They could be dead. And even if they weren't, they could be captives, blamed for something they didn't do.
I couldn't let myself think about it. I had to keep myself occupied. "I'm going to grow more food," I said as I walked over to the ladder. Tigala followed.
As the green glow lit up the ground in front of me, Tigala joined me leaning against a ruined wall. "So what's the plan?" she asked.
It was strange that she was looking to me for orders. It was odd pondering her question too. I hadn't really thought too much about what leaving the colony meant, despite being away from it for three days now. Whether I was in or out of the colony, I was surrounded by monsters that want me dead. The only difference in the colony was that they held grudges—built up anger because of what a person looked like, and the things their people had done.
But somehow, being out here felt more lonely. Maybe it was the fact that Zef and Lolan were still missing, or maybe it was because I was used to being around people even if I didn't interact with them much. I sighed. "We keep looking. I guess we can try and store up some food and search some areas that are further out. If we don't see Zef and Lolan in the next couple of days, we should go look for them."
"Do you really think they're still out here?" she asked. She seemed like she had something she wanted to say, but was edging around it.
"Zef and Lolan? I hope so," I said.
"No. The colonists," she said, still looking at the dark forest. "All of the people that disappeared."
"Oh. I don't know. It seems unlikely at this point. It seems even more unlikely that they're alive, but finding my people is the only thing I have to hope for," I said.
"Yeah, me too," she said.
"Who are you looking for?" I asked.
She paused for a few moments before answering. "My pack," she said. "They're stuck here because of me. ...My sister and I—we got them caught up in all of this."
Her pack? It must have been a Beastfolk term. "I'm sorry," I said. She didn't respond.
I continued to work on my vegetables and berries and had almost completed the last squash when I heard something in the distance. A whip-crack noise rang out. "What was that?" I asked.
Tigala shook her head. "I don't know."
"Maybe we can see it from the top," I said as I dashed up the ladder. Marv startled at me popping up from the ladder and then disappearing again up the next one. I reached the third level of the tower and found the floor to be crooked and unstable. I stayed along the strongest edge of the floor and looked out for the strange noise. The moon was full and bright, glinting off of the treetops surrounding me, but I didn't see any signs of the noise's source.
Then, I heard it again. Accompanying the snap of energy was a bright flash of light, not too far off. I saw another flash of light a few moments later that was also joined by a crack of energy or something like it. Could it be those storm mages? I wondered.
Marv and Tigala were both beside me now looking in the same direction. There was another flash and crack but this one was followed by a scream. It sounded like a young voice, like a girl. I turned to look at the others as if asking what we should do.
"That's Abigail," said Marv. He looked me dead in the eyes. "That's my little girl."